New York City 2008, Leonard St. outside opening of ‘no wave’ show
Interview by Jason Gross, Part 1
Sitting on a back porch in bucolic Western Massachusetts on a gorgeous summer’s day, my friend’s adorable little daughter coyly asked “wanna see a picture of me?” After I agree, she runs into the house in a flash and runs back out and jumps up on my lap. She’s not carrying a photo but a magazine instead- the French edition of Vogue. She furiously flips through it until she comes to a photo spread and gets excited, proudly pointing at the picture. “Dat’s Thurston, dat’s Kim, dat’s Coco and dat’s me!! ” she exclaims. Not too shabby but then again, this ain’t any little kid. She might not have appreciated it at the time but her dad, Byron Coley, was co-horts with a bunch of indie rock icons.
But Coley has much more on his C.V. than that. Starting out in the rock zine world, he went on to co-helm one of the most important and iconic indie music magazine of the 80’s, the bitchy and knowledgeable Forced Exposure. Beyond that, he made his mark as a columnist in the early years of Spin, documenting the same indie culture to a wider audience and occasionally sparing with Village Voice editor Robert Christgau in the 80’s. Nowadays, Coley’s work is regularly found in The Wire among other places, where he regularly champions the best of outre jazz.
And yeah, he does roll with the Sonic Youth crew now and then, especially focusing on numerous projects with Thurston Moore. Together, they’ve done a long-time review column for Arthur as well as literary publications, joint record releases on their labels (Byron has Father Yod, Thurston had Ecstatic Peace!), compilations (the wonderful Jazzactuel box set) and a recent book together (No Wave).
And Coley has his collector side too. His house has an adjacent barn which is full of records and he maintains an online store. The house itself is stocked with albums too, which one time brought about an unfortunate incident when his cat accidentally peed away thousands of dollars worth of rare Sun Ra records. Luckily, most of his collecting experiences are much happier than that as he frequents record fares with his wares.
As such, I dragged him out of last October’s WFMU record fair in New York City to interrogate him about his work. I’d been trying to get him to do this for a while so when he finally agreed, there was no reason to hesistate, especially since he’s never done a full-length interview about himself before.
PSF: Where did you grow up?
I was born in Manhattan, then lived in Long Island for a while. My dad was a pilot so we lived by the airport out there. Then I lived in the Poconos for a while. When I was a little kid, we moved around a lot but then by ’59 (when I was about 3), we moved to moved to north New Jersey in the rural area, up where all the reservoirs are. I sort of grew up around there. It was off the beaten path but it was a pretty close shot into the city. Everybody who lived out there… all the dads would commute into Manhattan for work.
PSF: What kind of music did you listen to when you were young?
My parents were not musical at all. They would listen to Mancini and stuff like that. Very generic, hi-fi music. I remember the soundtrack to On the Beach was a big favorite. It wouldn’t even be the original soundtrack- it would be a crappy knock-off orchestra doing this thing. It was very tangential to their existence. They liked having a grand piano. That was their thing. It completed the living room!
I took piano lessons for a long time. I played mostly European classical stuff, pretty standard- a lot of Bartok, Bach. I did a little bit more experimental stuff later but that was around the time around when I was giving up piano anyway. Erik Satie was about as far as I got in terms of contemporary stuff. I played very little popular music at all.
The first album I bought was “Hey Little Cobra” by the Rip Chords, in early ’64. The music that I was first really into was surf and hot rod music- the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, the California vocal groups more than the instrumental bands. I had some friends who really into the Ventures and stuff like that. So I was buying records pre-Beatles. I was a couple years ahead already in school by that point- I started early and skipped second grade. So I was in with the kids who were a few years older than I was. They were all into records already when I was in third and fourth grade. I just really didn’t under the 45 thing because they didn’t have pictures sleeves where I lived. So I’d go and look at records. There were no record stores local to me then. There was an electronics store that sold records and then there was a lunch counter called the Kinnelon Spa that sold records there.
So I did that kind of stuff and I started having bands in 4th or 5th grade. Just friends who lived in the neighborhood. One kid’s older brother had a band who actually did a single that’s on Back from the Grave 7 or 8. They were really cool so we just thought it was…) One kid had a drum kit, one kid had a guitar and I would play organ. But all you could hear was the drums because we really didn’t understand the technical aspect of it. We would just play covers like Blues Magoos’ “We Ain’t Got Nothing Yet.” This kid, Dickie Jospeh, has a big basement and his brother’s band rehearsed there. And there was this little furnace room and we would do our stuff in there. We also would occasionally put records on and lip synch to them. What on earth we were thinking I don’t know. We would have girls come over and lip synch to stuff.
PSF: Did you guys ever do any shows?
We never played out. There was nowhere really to play in those days. His brother’s band was originally called the Orbitrons and they changed their name to It’s Us. And they had a Volkswagen van called ‘the Us Bus.’ They played but their regular gig was at a strip club in Butler called the Baggy Knees. We weren’t really… strip-club-ready.
PSF: What was the name of your band?
UFO or the UFO’s. But we were always just trios. We would just horse around. This kid named Jeff had a reel-to-reel tape recorder so sometimes we would record stuff but that was about the extent of it. Between that and recording burping contests, it was like… We really did novelty songs like the Detergents stuff. We just did that kind of junk.
PSF: What happened with the band?
Well, I would change schools and those guys wouldn’t be around as much. Then I think… the guy whose house it was that we rehearsed at… his family moved when his dad got a job somewhere else in ’67 or so. I was about 10, 11.
After that, we did different weird stuff. We had a group called the Atomic Squawk in the early ’70’s. It was a jam band. We were into Beefheart and stuff like that. It was just kind of… make a bunch of noise and we would do really long, fake blues things. Nobody played very well. We were supposed to play with a band at a county fair but it fell through for some reason. Somebody would record stuff but we would just play at this guy’s house in the basement. I think we played at a party once but it was really not a very together type thing.
I had a similar band out in San Francisco called the Kahunas in the later 70’s. That was punk era but we didn’t do punk stuff. We were with this woman named Irene Dogmatic who had been in the band SST, which Ted Falconi’s band before Flipper. This guy Mike Shannon would later play a lot of experimental stuff up in the Pacific Northwest and is still active. We were playing just… weird noise. We’d also do parody songs like a reggae version of “Heroin” called “Heroin and Beer.” Just stupid ass stuff.
And then when I came back to New York, Georgia Hubley (later of Yo La Tengo) and I had a duo called the Kahunas, that was the Kahunas East, in ’80. We were actually supposed to have a gig playing with (no wave band) Information. I think I just chickened out. It was just bass and drums, no wave stuff with stupid, funny lyrics… which had been a constant throughout what passed for my musical career. (laughs)
PSF: Going back a bit, when the British Invasion music came around, did that make any impression on you?
Yeah but I hated the Beatles.
PSF: Why was that?
Well… in those days, we would have record parties all the time. People would stack up singles on a turntable. When the Beatles came along, if one of their songs came on, girls would RUN to the record player and scream. It was just such a drag. We would have these No-Beatles policies. And people wouldn’t really notice it but it made a huge difference. So I turned against the Beatles at that point.
PSF: Did you have anything against them on a purely musical basis?
Not ’til later. What I didn’t like about the Beatles eventually was that they weren’t really so much innovators as they were popularizers but people would mistake them as innovators. And I can listen to the stuff now. My daughter listens to their stuff. And it’s fine. There’s certain periods that are especially OK. But at the time, I just found that it was a drag.
But it really all came from these girls who were too into it. The Beatles were just so ubiquitous in grade school at that time. There would be like five Beatles songs on the charts at a time. ABC-AM became “W-A-Beatles-C.”
PSF: What about other British Invasion music? What did you think of that?
This friend of mine’s brother’s band, what they played more was like Animals, Stones songs, Them songs, stuff like that. And I liked it more but I didn’t really… collect much in the way of British records at that point. I don’t really know why. I stayed with mostly American stuff until later. I was really into the Byrds and some of the L.A. stuff. And then when the San Francisco stuff came along, I really loved that stuff. Quicksilver, Jefferson Airplane.
PSF: The Dead too?
Off and on. There was some stuff that I liked. I really like Anthem on the Sun but by the time the Dead got really popular with Workingman’s Deadand American Beauty, I really hated that period. But a lot of that was because I was living in a dorm when that stuff came out and again, it was ubiquitous. You just couldn’t get away from it. I always just hated having stuff forced on me in a way. So, I would just listen to other stuff because you just hear that anywhere. And I was always interested in things that were a little bit more… off the beaten path, I guess.
The stuff that I really got into then heavily was the Mothers. I bought a used copy from a guy I car pooled with of Freak Out within a year of when it came out. And then the Velvets… The first album, I was just crazy for. So that kind of stuff… But I was really into Moby Grape and all the San Francisco bands that I heard. There was only the major label stuff (available) but I really liked that particular period. (Quicksilver’s) Happy Trailsand the first Velvets and first Stooges in terms of play. And Notorious Byrd Brothers.
PSF: Later on, how were you effected by punk when it came along?
Punk had a profound effect on me and most of my good friends. The earliest NY bands — Patti Smith Group & Television — seemed more like some sort of hybridized garage rock/art rock thing in a lot of ways, and that was pretty damn appealing. but bands like the Dictators (whose first album was pretty near perfect) and the Ramones (again, perfection), were just revelatory explosions appealing on so many levels you could just shit. When the first U.S. coverage started appearing about the Sex Pistols in early ’76, that just seemed too good to be true. i mean, these were guys exactly my age who seemed hell-bent on destroying the status quo. in those lean cultural days, what could be ore appealing? Unlike some of my friends, I didn’t get rid of all my old “hippie shit” records when punk came along, but it was clearly the arrival of a music I could enjoy from the inside, rather than as a younger observer from the outside (as I’d always been before).
PSF: Going back, what early shows did you go to?
First concert that I saw was It’s Us opening for the Left Banke at a local high school. It was good. It’s Us were much better than the Left Banke. They were really weren’t much of a live band- I think they were more of a studio type band. After that, I saw a few concerts… The part of Jersey that I lived in there were these odd kind of day parks where they had a lake. People from the city would come out and they’d have like a little cabana for the day. And then they’d change their clothes and swim. At the end of the day, they’d go back to the city. These kind of weird day vacation things. And there were a couple of those in my area, sometimes in the summer where they would put on bigger concerts. So I’d occasionally see stuff like that. When they were started doing concerts at the Singer Bowl, we’d go into New York to see the Shaffer Festival, which started in Central Park. I would see anything and a lot of those would be mixed bills with 2 or 3 bands. Some of the bigger bands I’d see were the Doors or the Who. At that point, if we could get a ride and we had the money, we’d go… A ticket to the Shaffer was like $1.50 or something like that. So we go in and see almost anything. It wasn’t like we could do it very often so we’d have to organize rides with somebody’s older brother and get them a ticket- it was a complicated thing.
PSF: Was there a dissonance you felt listening to the Velvets and then seeing these bigger bands play?
Well… (pause) In a way, I really didn’t discriminate. It seemed like in a certain time that all of those bands, even the ones that were very established, had a kind of anti-authoritarian quality to them, at least as we perceived it, that made them all kind of underground. Even bands that were big… there was a difference between listening to the Doors or listening to the Beatles. There was that kind of dichotomy also. Later, it would be… You would be listening to something instead of listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or Joni Mitchell. So even though these were major label records, they still had a different kind of quality. And I was always really into certain labels- Elektra was always an interesting label and I was into Reprise because they put out those samplers. You’d hear these little bits of things and be like ‘Oh, that was be really cool’ with whatever you’d hear. When I discovered ESP-Disk, that was a real revelation, which was through the Fugs. I was read a lot of music magazines and stuff would sound interesting, you would try to hear it. I had a pretty limited record collection though. By this time, there were record stores but there were none that were really close but they’d be in malls that had opened up. You’d go to these big mall stores and look at record covers endlessly before you’d buy them. ‘I wonder what this one is like?’ I can remember when Funhouse came out, I hadn’t heard the first Stooges album. But the cover toFunhouse was just like… ‘This looks really nuts.’ I must have looked at it for like six months before I bought it.
PSF: What music magazines did you read then?
There were some that were free. There was Go magazine which was a weekly thing underwritten by radio stations. That was the first one I read and then I had a friend’s older brother who got Crawdaddy. That was a really interesting one. When Rolling Stone started, that was sort of around. So I’d read that and Crawdaddy kept on changing formats. When Fusion was around, I really liked that.
PSF: Were there any particular writers you liked?
The person I really liked always was (Richard) Meltzer. His writing, especially the stuff he was doing for Creem, was just… When Creem started getting distributed nationally, around ’71, that was really revelatory. I mean, all the Creem writers. I really thought all those people just made up their names, like Lester Bangs. Who could have a name like that? (laughs)
PSF: What was it about that writing that made an impression on you?
It was just very funny. Meltzer, Tosches at that time… Bangs. I really liked Metal Mike Saunders stuff. Robot A. Hull. All those guys just really cracked me up. I really enjoyed reading them even though a lot of times, they weren’t very good for musical information. With Meltzer, you could never tell- it had nothing to do with the record at all, most of the time. And then other people would get super-enthusiastic about stuff that I just really didn’t like, but I enjoyed READING them regardless.
PSF: Did that have an impact on you to make you want to write yourself?
As early as 4th or 5th grade, I would type these little one-sheet things. My parents bought me a typewriter for Christmas one year and I would retype stuff. I would read music magazines then but this was pretty early, so they were more like fan magazines, like Tigerbeat and 16 and stuff like that. So I wouldn’t actually get those but I had friends whose sisters would have them. So I’d look at them and I would glean information from those and type up a sheet. I’d take it to school and pass it around and people would read it. It was about what bands were playing at some club in New York. I never really knew much about anything but I would just regurgitate the information. And I did that off and on for a while. I didn’t really think about doing it any more seriously (than that).
It was a little while later (around ’73) when I started sending reviews after Creem came around. I tried to do ones that hadn’t been done, like imports. JEM had started by that point so I tried to get some of that stuff. But my stuff was so light… It was totally like, Meltzer-damaged. That was all. Nobody would ever print anything. I would just get rejection letters. But in retrospect, I’m not surprised that nobody was going for it.
PSF: When did you first get your work published?
Well, I got kicked out of Hampshire College in ’76… And I’d been sending stuff to Punk and New York Rocker, which John Holmstrom and Alan Betrock published. So I fucked around and I wound up going back to U Mass and I took a writing course, which I never had before. I had a young T.A. grad student and she said “You should just write like you talk.” It was really revelatory. I had never really thought about that. So I started doing that and I wrote a bunch but it was mostly class stuff, autobiographical fiction stuff. I started writing for the school paper, doing record reviews. They would run them but they would put them generally next to somebody else’s record review, like it was the same length. And the guy said “This is so you could see what a record review should be and what a record review should not be!” And mine was always the example of what a review should not be. (laughs) Because again, I wasn’t really content-orientated, as formal…
PSF: So they called you out as a bad example in print?
No, but that’s what he would say at our meetings. “This is to only show you what…” So I would do that kind of stuff for a while and then I… What happened was that Andy Schwartz bought New York Rocker from Betrock in ’78. I was sort of drifting around a lot then. I was going back and forth between coasts. I didn’t really live anywhere for a few years. And I was in New York, I would hang out and I actually stayed with Andy for a while. And one day, he said “We wanna do a Beefheart thing and you know more about him than anyone else around here so maybe you could do the interview.” So I spent the night with my friend Robbie hashing out the information we wanted to get and went and did the interview. It went OK. So he (Andy) went “Oh, that’s OK… so we were going to do a Devo tour diary for their first major label tour…” So, I was going to go on the tour. So I did that- it was around ’78. Those were my first paid things and they were in the same issue. So from that point on, I was writing for the Rocker pretty regularly.
PSF: What was it like interviewing Beefheart?
It was good. I had actually interviewed him once before. He’s a very funny guy! And he did all these thing though that I never really figured out what they were until later. Like he would always asking ‘Do you know what I mean?’ And so you’d be going ‘Uh… yeah!’ But he would have these great aphorisms. So I interviewed him backstage once just for a few minutes for a school paper. But to sit down with him, he would say stuff like (in a deep voice) ‘You know, an architect is just someone who wants to crawl up your penis, pull down the shades and type all night… You know what I mean?’ And you’d be like… ‘Wo…’ (laughs) You didn’t wanna appear so unhip as to say ‘No, I don’t know what you mean!’ So it was pretty fun. I even interviewed him later too.
Left pic: Amherst, MA 1975, Hampshire College, with Josh Zaret (Byron on the left)
Right pic: Santa Monica 1982, 17th street house, with Peter Tillman of the Lipstick Killers (Byron on the right)
Interview by Jason Gross, Part 2
PSF: So what happened then with your writing?
Once I had those done, I was able to do stuff for the Rocker pretty regularly. He would turn down stuff too but… And I had a press card. I was living mostly out on the West Coast though at that point- mostly in San Francisco and L.A. also.
PSF: Did you like working for the Rocker?
Oh yeah. Andy was really encouraging. And it was really funny because Holmstrom would be like ‘Oh, you write for New York Rocker!’, giving me a hard time. And I said ‘I’ve been sending you stuff and you’d never print it and now somebody’s printing it!’
PSF: Did you ever write for him?
I don’t think I did. I’ve wondered about this ’cause I used to hang around with those guys at one point, early on, around ’76… when there was still three of them and the original publisher Ged Dunn was still involved.
PSF: So what were you doing on the West Coast then?
I moved there in ’81 and I was just around there. I would just hang out at clubs and sometimes I’d work at record stores. I edited the Mabuhay House Organ, which was the in-house magazine there (at San Fran punk club Mabuhay Gardens). Howie Klein was West Coast editor of New York Rocker at that point, and he started to introduce me to a bunch of people out there and he’d get me an occasional writing gig, doing some kind of punk thing. So I did that but it was very inexpensive to live out there. I didn’t have to do much. I would just trade records between stores. I’d just hang out. (laughs) And I’d just travel. I’d bounce back between coasts then- it was like $54 bucks then to go anywhere in the States on a bus.
PSF: How did that lead up to Forced Exposure later?
I moved back to the East Coast and then I eventually moved in with my future wife in Boston in ’80. I’d been writing a lot for The Rocker at that point and some other places. I tried to get a gig with Boston Rock but they would not… It was kind of weird. So this guy was starting this new magazine called Take It so I met him after seeing an ad in the first issue and I became the managing editor of that. So I got in all those writers that I knew, like Meltzer and Greg Turner (also of Angry Samoans), Mick Farren (also of the Deviants), Ira Kaplan (later of Yo La Tengo). So all these people that I knew just started writing for it. So I did that for about a year and then I moved up to the West Coast. And I kept doing Take It, which was in Boston and it ran for about 7 or 8 issues. But I started writing for a bunch of other places once I moved out to L.A. because there was a lot of stuff going on in L.A. then…
PSF: Like what?
I wrote for a lot of fanzines, like Touch and Go, Cretin Bull. There was tons of stuff and a lot of mid-West places. I was still writing for New York Rocker and I was still editing Take It. And then I started writing for The L.A. Weekly and L.A. Reader a lot and Option, which was changing over from OP. I wrote my first liner notes when I was still in Boston, for Eight-Eyed Spy Live. So I was doing some of that stuff. Not too much but a little bit but I got a column in The L.A. Weekly called ‘Tongue Wrestling In A White Hot Void.’ I was also writing a lot for The Reader… and Jimmy (Johnson) had started Forced Exposure but then stopped it. But I was really involved in all the hardcore (music) stuff- I mean, I was the tour manager for the Flesheaters. I would just go out and see tons of shit. And I was working at Rhino Records. And I was dealing with a lot of stuff… I started working at SST.
PSF: What were you doing with Rhino and SST?
At Rhino, I was just working at the store as a clerk, abusing people. I wasn’t at the label. SST… Greg (Ginn) had wanted to hire me to do promotion stuff but I said ‘I can’t do that’ ’cause I wouldn’t be able to write about the bands anymore. So when (Joe) Carducci came down, we did a thing where… This is when they were going through the (Unicorn) lawsuit stuff, around ’82, ’83… I would go down and set up their radio tracking system, just for free. I would do that as volunteer work one day a week. I’d just bring food to eat… bring a big bag of bagels every week! (laughs) And they were supposed to cover my gas money so I was supposed to get $5 put in and I never really got it. It was really sort of hard times for them anyway. So, I would just do that and just hang out. I was there (L.A.) ’til ’84.
At that time, there really weren’t that many punk singles collectors. I had known Greg Shaw and the Bomp warehouse was closed to the public but I could go there and hang out with him. I met him through Alan Betrock. I would talk about stuff with him and I could go over with a check from Rhino and buy unlimited singles for fifty cents a piece. I would just go through and buy whatever I wanted. There’d be boxes of stuff I’d take. So I had that and the really cheap stuff from Rhino, these dollar singles. So I was already a collector kind of but then I really started focusing on punk stuff. So I was trading records constantly. I would spend like two hours doing correspondence every morning.
PSF: Was this for Rhino or yourself?
Well, I’d get stuff for Rhino and then I could buy any stuff off of Rhino just for the cost. So I’d get 1200 singles and then 50 of them would be for me and the rest of them would be for the store. To get ’em at cost was kind of like your finder’s fee. At Rhino, you could buy anything at cost if you worked there. So I would just do that and Chuck Warner would come out and stay with me. We were the only guys who were really into punk singles as collectables in a big kind of way. But there were a lot of guys who ran labels, who did fanzines and all that stuff who knew about these record and were interested in getting, like the Urinals singles or stuff from Dangerhouse (Records).
So I started trading with tons of people. One of the guys I traded with was Jimmy (Johnson). At that time, there was a cartoonist named John Crawford- he did this thing called “Baboon Dooley, Rock Critic.” I’d gone to high school with John. He used to try to get cartoons in New York Rocker all the time and Andy wouldn’t run ’em. And then one time, I took a bus ride back to Jersey with him and I ran into him in the city. I was like a rock critic and he decided that was like the worst fucking thing. So he started to do this cartoon strip, partly to make fun of me and show how pretentious rock critics were. We were talking about Public Image or something on the bus home and it was like “… ugh, this is fucking horrible.” So I knew John for a long time and I’d gone out with his sister for a while. He was in touch with everyone for a while. He did comics for every fanzine out there. He eventually started working a record producer so he would be in touch with Jimmy all the time.
When I was getting ready to move back east, I told him (Crawford) that I was going to be living in Watertown and he said “Jimmy Johnson lives there and he hasn’t put out an issue of Forced Exposure for the last year. If you’re gonna be there, you should goose him.” And so when I got back, that was one of the first things I did. Lili (Byron’s wife) and I had bought a computer, which was in those days was like $5000 to get a dual floppy machine with a letter-quality printer. There were no WYSIWYG word processing programs at all. This was ’84 and it was pretty crude. So we got that and I met Jimmy. We were interested in the same kind of stuff. He was quite a bit younger than I was. We were talking about… “maybe it would be good to get it going again and we have this computer so we could do justified layout stuff. We could print all the stuff out.” He was (previously) doing all the layout stuff on boards in his bedroom at his parents’ house. So we started talking… And so it was like “What would you like to put on the cover?” And he was like “The only thing I would put on the cover is this band Sonic Youth.” I was like “Wow, I’ve heard of them. Those guys are great.” I met Thurston before that and he had been sending me all the records on Neutral because he was doing Killer. I knew every fanzine guy and that’s how I first knew him. So I said (to Jimmy) “Oh yeah, that would be totally great.” What we decided was, what we really liked wasPlayboy magazine interviews. Like really long format interviews. And so, we were in agreement that it would be great to have something that would have long format interviews and just like a TON of fucking record reviews, book reviews and all that stuff. This is all part of one… there’s like this big flow of underground junk that’s all interesting. I mean, it’s of interest to us and we (thought we) should just write about that.
And so we started it. He was the publisher and editor in chief. And I was ‘jazz editor,’ but that was just a listing. I actually did most of the editing. The ideas was, I would write all the jazz that Jimmy doesn’t know about. But he did all the publisher stuff. I did most of the editing stuff, especially as it went along. He had more business stuff to deal with. But we met every day and we’d hash everyone out as it went along.
And we started putting those out and after we did two issues together… it seems to me that he was able to quit his job. So we put ourselves on salary, $150 a week so we could do it basically… I mean, I was doing writing for Spin at the same time. And I started writing books also. But our main thing was Forced Exposure and I tried to write like 10 reviews every day, in one format or another. And I was transcribing interviews and just doing a lot of stuff just to try to get ’em out pretty regularly. They’d do all the layout, all the ad sales, all the distribution stuff, taking it to the printer, all that shit. We just really did that until we stopped.
PSF: Did you have any kind of goals with it other than being self-sustaining?
Not really. The thing was, we didn’t really care. We thought if we did it just the way that we wanted to… The idea was really like Creem magazine making fun of people kind of stuff. It had that kind of attitude. In retrospect, there was a lot of stuff we did that was very crude and whatever but… We came from this personal position where the people who knew us knew that we weren’t sexist or homophobic or any of that stuff so we would just do it for our friends. But it would get into all these circumstances where people would really misread the stuff and take it maybe not in the way that it was intended. (laughs)
PSF: Like what?
We got a lot of guff for our infantile stances on certain things. And rightly so but a lot of people thought that we were really negative about stuff and things like that, which if you look at the issue, the bulk of our reviews are extremely positive. And we tried to review everything that came through and really be sort of encyclopedic about it to whatever degree we could, even if they were really short format reviews. The fact that it was mostly just two of us reviewing it, made us feel like if we did that, people would be able to understand our biases enough that the reviews would be useful to them, even if they didn’t agree with them. It would be like ‘oh, he doesn’t like this kind of stuff anyway but it sounds good (in the review) so I like that kind of stuff!’ We tried to do that. We were casting around to write about the best local band and they were all defunct. It was like the Girls were the best local band, but who would be next? ‘Oh, Mission of Burma!’ So we got Mission of Burma together for this interview even though they’d been broken up for a while.
It was just stuff like that, things we wanted to do, pretty much. And we weren’t beholden to anybody because with the magazine, people seemed to like it and it sold really well at the time. So, we had more ads- we actually turned down ads all the time. It’s hard to imagine now! They were just people who hated us because we didn’t like their band.
PSF: What were some of the best and worst interviews you remember from that time?
The one we were dreading the most was the Diamanda Galas one. The problem with doing a print magazine is that sometimes, records come out and it’s like… you really don’t have enough time to deal with (them), but you want to deal with it ’cause it’s on a label like Mute. So a Diamanda Galas record came in right when the issue was due and I think Jimmie reviewed it. His whole review was something like… she was supposedly going out with Blixa (Bargeld) right then, so Jimmie wrote something like “Blixa’s dick must be as big as everybody says it is because she’s really fucking screaming on this one.” (laughs) And she kind of hit the roof because at that time, a lot of people were reading the magazine and a review like that… People would just really laugh. The label put across the word that she was furious about it. And I absolutely understand. So we said “OK, we’ll interview her. We’ll put her on the cover of the next issue.” It seemed like a good idea anyway.
But getting ready to go down for that interview… We interviewed her at a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen. We were just like “Oh my God, she’s going to fucking castrate us.” So we went in and her rep was really vicious and we had done tons of research, so we went in prepared to be disembowel. And we apologized and explained the situation, but she was really hostile. But then as it went along and she hummed a Coltrane tune and Jimmie knew what it was (it was something theme from Meditations) and she was like “Oh!” And the questions we had were obviously well-researched- we asked her about a lot of stuff that people hadn’t really talked to her about. So it ended up being OK but that was a rough one.
There were other really bad ones. The worst interview probably was underground cartoonist S. Clay Wilson. We were working on a big series. We’d done a Robert Wilson cover and he really liked it. It worked out really great. People seemed to get really interested in it so we were going out to San Francisco, doing a bunch of stuff. I had done a lot of research, talking to people who knew him. I knew all these people who knew him from Kansas. So we went with a couple of six packs of beer, which in retrospect was a bad idea ’cause he started getting LOUD in the afternoon. I would ask him “What did you do to get out of the draft?” because I knew that he had some kind of funny story about it. He said “How do you know about that? I can’t talk about that. They could get me!” And it just sort of went downhill. We just could not get him started. We did a lot of interviews that never ran but there were always some that were just like… (shrugs)
PSF: What about some really good ones that you did for the magazine?
I was pretty happy with most of them. The Butthole Surfers one was really rough. There were some people who were rough but generally, we would do tons of research and people were really happy to do them. And we had a tendency to talk to people before they’d really been interviewed out by a lot of people.
(pauses, thinking) The really good ones… There were ones that were really just fun to do. At that point, we had the people from the Volcano Suns and they were not on anybody’s radar really. Stuff like that was fun to do- we just had them over for dinner. I had Dan Ireton (Dredd Foole) too because I knew that he’d seen all those shows, he and Pat. They had a lot of info that they’d be able to prod out of stuff. But I knew those guys- when I lived in L.A., they came over and stayed at our house. I would see them a lot, Lili and I, and Jimmy had seen them a lot too. So we were pretty conversant with all this stuff.
PSF: What happened to FE that it had to stop?
I had a kid and moved out to the Western part of the state (Massachusetts). Jimmy and I and Lili had looked at houses together. We couldn’t find anything though. I was 100 miles away so we weren’t having meetings all the time. The situation was just changing and he had done an insert, a record catalog, in the final issue. He’d sold a lot of stuff so he was starting to think maybe that… He was actually making money at that. So maybe it was a better (proposition). We put together another issue that never came out and we didn’t really decide to knock it on the head for a while. For the final issue we did, I’d gone down to New Zealand and done a bunch of interviews down there. It’s just one of those things. Without being in each other’s face every day, it was just hard to stay on top of, ’cause there were so many little decisions to be made all the time about stuff that just required you hang on the phone (moans and mumbles). That was not something either of us wanted to do. And he moved to another place and he had a place where he could fit a lot more records in. He was starting to get specialty stuff so he was the only person at that point that was carrying Japanese stuff and that kind of thing. He really started putting out catalogs then. So it was just a change. We had done it for a few years and we did it all the time. It was just like total immersion as a project. When we’d travel, we’d be traveling to do interviews. You can keep that stuff going for a certain period of time and then it loses some of its luster. And just me, I had a kid and that was a different scene. It took a lot of energy away from it- I couldn’t be as dedicated to the cause.
PSF: Have you ever thought about doing an anthology for Forced Exposure?
Yeah, we’ve talked about it extensively but… What we’d really like to do is The Complete with a lot of additional interviews and articles. So it gets into a real size quandary ’cause it’s like 1,000,000 words.
PSF: You could do it in volumes.
I know. We’ll get something worked out. You know, people have a process about different things. At some point, it would probably happen. There’s some people who really don’t want their stuff reprinted for a variety of reasons. For some of it, their juvenilia is embarrassing to them for whatever reason. But yeah, we’d be entertained to do it. I did a thing where I got all of the reviews in alphabetical, chronological order. I could reformat that stuff ’cause we used to have embedded, HTML-type code formatting for everything. You know- ‘turn on bold, turn on italics.’ This was early word processing stuff.
PSF: Did you ever think about doing a zine after that?
(pauses) The idea has occasionally arisen. Thurston and I were talking about doing something at one point but the reality of it has never really come to being. We doing the Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal for a while. But in terms of music stuff, we were talking about doing a music thing but there’s only so many hours in a day. That’s the thing.
PSF: How did you first meet up with Thurston?
I corresponded with him before I met him when he was doing Killer (zine). Then he would send me the records. I met him on his first trip to the West Coast and he came out with Kim to maybe meet her parents. He came into Rhino Records with Jack Rabid so that’s when I met him, around ’82 or ’83. It was one of those things. They lived on Eldridge Street for a long time and so I’d just sort of keep in touch with him. And then I moved back east in ’84 and that’s when Jimmy and I really got the Forced Exposure thing started so we went down to interview them. And we sort of hung out and that started to be the place when Jimmy and I would come down to New York- they’d say ‘oh, you could stay here any time.’ It was a real small place so one guy would be on the couch and one guy would be on the floor. It was a walk up in a Chinatown. And you’d stand outside and Kim would throw down a sock with the key in it.
We just got along really well. We were into a lot of the same stuff. Those guys were really into science fiction revival that was going on then. It was just one of those things where we were all on the same wavelength. So we just started hanging out. Then we saw them play a lot and different things like that. The record (Bad Moon Rising) came out on Homestead then and we were pretty tight with Gerard (Cosloy) and all that scene. The first thing Gerard had written for was Take It. And Jimmy had known them since they were both coming up about the same time. When Paul Smith came along from the Blast First thing, he was going to put out a Forced Exposure book at one point. He’d give us gigs and I’d do an interview album and different stuff like that. So it was one of those things. And Thurston wanted to do this label stuff so Jimmy did it with him for a while- he just helped him with the nuts and bolts of doing different stuff. It just went along and it was always where we stayed when were in New York. So we just ended up spending a lot of time together and going to different stuff. And then when I moved out to the Western part of Massachusetts in ’90, they would stay with us when they were in Boston and Kim and Thurston would come up for weekends. Then when they had a kid, their daughter and our daughter were born two weeks apart so they’d come up all the time and we’d have baby fights. (laughs) Not really though. They ended up renting a house up there and then they ended up moving out there. And Thurston and I would have different projects going together and a lot of them were sort of one-off different things…
Right pic: Santa Monica 1982, 17th street house, with Peter Tillman of the Lipstick Killers (Byron on the right)
New York City, circa 2004: Soundstage, Central Park
“with” Thurston & Monica Lewinsky. photoshopped by Bill Dwight
Interview by Jason Gross, Part 3
PSF: What kind of one-off projects were you doing with Thurston?
Ecstatic Peace Records. We did the Red Transistor one- he really wanted to and didn’t have the money so I paid for it, even though it was on Ecstatic Peace. Just different kinds of things like that. I did some bootleg LP’s with him. He would do his own stuff or he would do stuff with other people but he and I would just sort of do stuff together. He really started getting into jazz… We were really into the same junk, basically. Both of our wives got along really well and both of them tolerated all that kind of stuff. (laughs) We got to start this store because we’d been telling both of them (Kim and Byron’s wife)… we’d been bringing home all these records and we lived in these smaller places and they’d really complain. We’d always go “Oh, this is just stuff for the store.” And after a few years of that, they both simultaneously said: “Where is this STORE of which you speak?” So we actually started a store. They sort of called our bluff. (laughs) So we did that and it still continues to some degree… We were both also into this weird 60’s poetry stuff. It was just sort of parallel play kind of stuff. You just meet people you get along with sometimes.
Work was the same way- there are people who have a ton of projects going and I get along with people like that really well because we understand each other. I have a harder time getting along with people who don’t have a million balls up in the air at once. They really don’t understand the dynamics of… “No, I really don’t wanna just sit around.” If I get into a hammock, I get really antsy! It’s like Kim and Thurston would come down and we’d vacation together. Thurston would get really (restless).
PSF: How have things changed over the years with the way that you and Thurston work together on projects?
Well, there are different things we do together. We do writing stuff together which we’ve done for a while. We’ve talked a lot about it before we actually did it. We were thinking that we’d start a music column that we could syndicate to weeklies and right when we were trying to figure out how to do that, Arthur magazine started. Thurston had a done a column for Mean, which Jay Babcock had been with before he started Arthur. So he told Jay that he was thinking about doing a music column with me so we thought we’d do it for Arthur and it’ll only last for a couple of issues and then we’ll have some tear sheets which we can send out and try to figure it out. But then it (Arthur) kept going.
I hope to go back to freelancing. It’s satisfying to have printed copy, at least for me.
PSF: How do you guys decide on projects that you want to work on?
One person just gets really enthusiastic about it. But he’s got a lot of other stuff he does as collaborations with other people that handle this stuff. There’s certain things that seem better orientated towards that stuff. There’s things that we know we’re both interested in. But he’s got this new book publishing thing (Ecstatic Peace Library) that I think is gonna take a lot of his time. We were talking about starting a new archival vinyl label only too, for no wave things and stuff like that.
PSF: How do you decide to split up the work between the two of you?
It’s really kind of organic. Generally, if there’s a record-type project, usually, one person organizes it and does most of the stuff. We just decide we’re gonna do it and then one person has to… You really can’t have too many cooks in that, ’cause the physical work on most of that stuff is not particularly arduous or long. You just decide you’re gonna do it, you put the stuff together and then you just do it. So generally, one person ends up doing more of that and it could be either of us. Generally, it’s whoever comes up with the idea and it’s like ‘do you wanna do this as a collaboration thing?’ What that actually means is that sometimes, they really are collaborations, sometimes it’s like ‘you can put your logo up here too.’ For the writing things, he’ll do some and I’ll do some. Generally, I’ll do the final edit on stuff. We’ll just bounce stuff (around). With the Internet, it’s like crazy to bounce stuff back and forth. A lot of writing stuff, maybe I’ll do the bulk of the stuff and then send it to him and he’ll futz around with it and change some of it and edit it and send it back to me. So those things have a tendency to have both of our hands on it. Although occasionally, I can’t do something. I don’t have the time or he doesn’t have the time. And then one of us will do it and we’ll still put both (names) on it.
You know, I used to do written interviews for Kim…
PSF: You mean that you would answer her questions for her in some interviews?
Yeah. She would send them (the questions) to me and I would answer the questions for her. I’d send the answers back to her and if she wanted to change anything, she’d change it.
PSF: How often did you do that?
Oh, I don’t know… A few times. I managed Free Kitten so it was more during that era. I knew what she would say but she didn’t want to take the time to do it. So I’d say “do you want me to make a lot of stuff up?” I would do these press releases for their records and I would make up all this shit. And people would be asking about it in interviews. “Oh, so this is the second part of a trilogy…!” (laughs) And she’d say “Oh no, not all all.” “But it says in the bio…!” And she’d say “Oh, this guy just made that up…”
It was the same with (J.) Mascis. I would write all of Dinosaur Jr.’s press material. And I would just absolutely totally fabricate everything.
PSF: But it probably worked ’cause it got them recognition.
Yeah. I mean, with Thurston, if my name is gonna be on something that he actually did, I’m not really worried about it. He knows me. He’s got a pretty good idea of what I’d do anyway. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what he would do. Even if one of us did something (different), it would be like, “who cares really?” It’s not gonna sully our reputations very much. You’re just on to the next thing already anyway!
PSF: How did the Yod record label come about?
The first thing I put out on that was a Spacemen 3. It was originally going to be on Forced Exposure Records. But right when we were getting ready to put it out, they signed an American deal with a label. So it was gonna be conflict if we were gonna sell it as a Forced Exposure thing. And we didn’t wanna get a licensing thing from the label. So I thought ‘fuck, I’ll just put another name on it.’ I’d been doing a radio show under the name Father Yod so I just decided to do it as ‘Father Yod Presents.’ So I put that one out and for a long time, that was the only one. But then, at a certain point… Some of the stuff I’d put out, I put out on different labels. There’s some Twisted Village Records that I put out and for Forced Exposure Records, Ecstatic Peace Records…
But at some point then, it was like, “Oh well, I should really have a label for other stuff that I can put out.” So that label (Yod) already existed and I already had a logo for it so I just did that. At the time, people didn’t know much about the Father Yod stuff so at the time, it wasn’t really problematic. Later on, it became a little bit more confusing for people I think if they (the actual Father Yod band) did stuff. But it was just a label. A lot of stuff initially were collaborative things and so it was something from Ecstatic Peace and Father Yod. And then once we opened the store, we decided ‘oh maybe we’ll start doing some stuff as Ecstatic Yod.’ I know that it’s actually pronounced “YOWD” but I will never take that route! (laughs)
PSF: Did you ever consider an aesthetic for the Yod label?
(pauses) My feeling for the label has been that if anybody else ever wanted to put it out, they should put it out. I really only put out stuff that nobody else wanted to put out.
PSF: Right, but even in that framework, you still chose certain things that you thought were right for you. What was it about the material you chose to release that made you want to work on it?
Well… I don’t know if there’s really a kind of integrated aesthetic. Some of the releases are related in terms of stylistic stuff. But other ones are not. The only thing that they have in common is a kind of marginal relationship to popular music! (laughs)
The thing is that I have a really strong belief in the idea that there’s an aesthetic that developed in the post-war period that’s really this kind of this underground concept that touches a lot of different things in different media and in different countries and in a lot of different ways. And that’s the stuff that interests me. And in a way, it’s all connected. I’ve been trying to come up with sort of a unified field theory for this stuff but there’s this single, I’m spacing on the title now, with a line like “I have to live my life in the world of the underground” is the chorus to it. I sort of feel that way- my underground, right or wrong! (laughs) It’s just stuff that really appeals to me in a way that if it’s not appealing to someone else in the same way, that they feel compelled to put it out, that sort of makes it more interesting to me. And then historical stuff also. But it’s much more about fitting into a wide conceptual background than anything specifically more stylistic. So whether it’s even an aesthetic is questionable.
PSF: How did your war with Robert Christgau start out?
Well… I think what must have really came first was that he would write really negative stuff about Sonic Youth in the Voice. In fact, it was just stupid. And so when we (Forced Exposure) did a single with them (Sonic Youth) in ’85, it was “Kill Your Idols.” And so, without them know it, I retitled the song: “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick.” And he was really not amused. And I guess I can understand why, although you know, why anybody would really care… It was just sort of funny, I thought. And it was a “OK, you killed me, I’ll kill you” sort of thing. And then I actually recorded an anti-Christgau spoken word thing also that came out on a 7 inch.
The whole ‘Dean’ thing rubbed me the wrong way. And the fact that he thought… His Consumer Guide was extremely useful for a lot of stuff. But I always thought “Who cares about this mainstream shit?” I don’t give a fuck about most of that stuff, at all. And at that, I was writing a lot more reviews than he was. We weren’t reviewing any of the same records, at all. I just thought that the (Guide’s) format was interesting and the short review thing was good and he obviously knew… But who CARES about an Ashford & Simpson record or something like that? It just didn’t resonate with me at all. So you do a couple of things like that and you get on somebody’s bad side… So he wouldn’t let me write for the Voice when he was music editor. Although when Doug Simmons became music editor, I wrote for them pretty regularly for a while. But then when Chuck Eddy came in, I was out again. And he sort of encouraged Eddy to sort of go after the Forced Exposure aesthetic- that big ‘pig fucker’ story. That kind of stuff is fine…
It’s like that Ernest Borgnine-Lee Marvin movie Emperor of the North Pole. Who’s gonna be the king of the fanzines or the king of the rock critics or something like that? And it’s NOTHING. You’re king of nothing! Dean of Rock Critics? It’s like being Dean of Shitville. Being a rock critic is like the lowest fucking peg on anybody’s poll. So I’ve never understood… although it’s fun to get in fanzine wars and all that stuff but I don’t really get why… There’s no turf. What’s the pay off of being master of this particular universe? I don’t believe that there is one. Maybe unless you really get a lot of free records but you don’t even get that anymore- you get downloads. So there’s not even that inducement. It’s not like chicks dig rock critics. What ELSE is it? Band you don’t like will be friendly to you? You do it because you have to and it’s really a liability more than anything else, more than a vocation.
PSF: So did this battle come down to a truce or a draw?
He and I don’t really run in the same (circles). We may run into each other maybe at a Holy Modal Rounders gig or something. That would be about the only time our worlds would rub. I think it was really stupid of the Voice to get rid of him. I mean, why would they? I mean I felt bad about that, although I think his NPR gig as hideous as anybody’s. Well, maybe not (as bad as) Milo Miles, who is like the worst. I mean, Milo Miles wrote the worst record review I’ve ever read, of the first Gun Club album for the New York Rocker. I tried to KILL that review but they wouldn’t let kill it. You know, for Christgau, I’m sure he’s fine.
The only times I made any money doing this was when I was really writing a lot for Spin and when I was on the staff as an editor (late ’80’s). I was there until Bob (Guiccione Jr., publisher) decided that there was no underground.
PSF: I remember that you told me that Spin wanted to do a Beefheart special and they were leery about it unless you had a big name from that time to hitch onto it. So they suggested “why don’t you talk to Beck, and get a quote?” (Note: after first hearing that story, I suggested to Byron that we start a zine called “Talk To Beck,” where we would just get his opinion about everything)
Yeah… That was crazy. That was when Craig Marks was the editor, who I’d known for a really long time. He used to be Gerard’s (Cosloy) assistance at Homestead. So it was the 25th anniversary of Trout Mask. I talked to literally everybody who played on the record, engineered, did the art, all that stuff. And all they could say after I turned it in was “Oh yeah… could you get some quotes from Beck about this record?” It was like…! (awe-struck look) And I had even gotten a quote from Matt Groening, which I thought, “Oh, it’s OK ’cause it’s him” and I had known him since theL.A. Reader days. And it was “Oh well, what about Beck? What do you think? He must like this record…” I was like “OH CHRIST!!!”
PSF: How did you like working for Spin otherwise at that time?
It was kind of weird. I started writing for them… I wrote a Sonic Youth piece for them that was actually supposed to be in the first issue but it got held for a few issues. And I wrote for them regularly up til… I wrote features for them and reviews. They kept on churning through editors though so I never really knew who the editors were. And these were the fax days so I’d fax in copy and I wouldn’t even know whose attention to put it to necessarily. And Richard Gehr was there for a while. It was a bunch of people who I knew who went through.
When Andrea Enthal left, I took over the ‘Underground’ column and then they expanded it. There was an ‘Underground’ section. So I was doing that and the people who were the editors did whatever they did. But I think that at a certain point… I never talked to Bob at all. I never had to go to the office. I would occasionally go in and drop stuff off. I never saw him except from a distance. And he would occasionally… I would be talking to an editor and he would like burst onto the phone. “Oh man, it was really capital!” At one point, he killed one of my columns. I used to write a thing where what I’d do is an overview of somebody’s career. And I one time I did Meltzer’s, and they were like “No, you can’t do this.”
I don’t know! They could never really figure it out. So I had to redo it. But I think that then it sort of got on his radar. And so then, what they must have looked at is whether there was any ad revenue coming in from anybody that I mentioned. (laughs) And I don’t think there was, even though tons of people would write me about it. “Oh, it’s really cool to read this stuff. I live in Iowa and it’s nice that I can read about this stuff from the 7-11 where I pick it up.” And that was always my goal with that- just to write about a bunch of different stuff. Put all the info in there so that people would at least know that there was something else going on. I thought it worked pretty well but then he just said “The underground does not exist.” That was his quote. This was about ’91.
PSF: Right around when Nirvana blew up.
Yeah, right before Nirvana broke. I mean, it’s… (exasperated) pretty weird. He was convinced that there was no (underground). So, whatever…
PSF: After that, what were some of the best places that you enjoyed writing for?
The fanzine guys were always nice ’cause they never changed anything! They were just happy to get copy. So they were all good.
The hardest was working for the Voice. They would do these line edits where I’d spent two hours on the phone with Doug Simmons, going over every comma.
PSF: Would about Pulse (Tower Records’ magazine)? What did you think of working for them?
Most of those places would just call me up and I’d just send it in. A lot of times I gotta say that I don’t really read the stuff after it comes out. Whatever they do to it is generally fine with me as long as I don’t talk to them too much about it. It is weird that people change stuff sometimes without letting you know but generally, it’s fine. I mean, when I lived in L.A., Richard Gehr was the editor at the (L.A.) Reader and Matt Groening was the associate music editor. Those guys were always great to do stuff with.
PSF: What about writing the UK magazines? It seems like you’ve had a pretty good relationship with The Wire for instance.
Yeah, I’ve done that column for about ten years now. Well, I hadn’t written anything for a while after the Spin gig stopped and Forced Exposurestopped.
Well, I had a kid and all this other stuff to do. And without regular outlets, it’s like… freelance writing is just like sales gigs. And then at some point, I decided that I wanted to start writing again so I was like “Oh, who would I write for?” And I thought “The Wire and MOJO.” So I got in touch with both of them and at that time, they were like “Oh yeah, sure.” So I just started doing stuff for both of them. And then MOJO changed a lot of their policy stuff as time went along. The reviews would keep getting shorter and shorter and shorter! And then they made a purge of most non-English writers so that was just the way it went.
For The Wire, I just always make my deadlines. They try to get me to write more stuff than I generally write.
PSF: They’re pretty nice people to work for.
Yeah, they are. I mean the pay isn’t very good although the pound is high enough now that it feels better.